Friday, September 21, 2018

Rare beaked whales may not be so rare after all

            A month-long survey of the deep waters from George’s Bank to the continental shelf south of Rhode Island has turned up an unexpectedly large number of a little-known whale, and scientists are excited that they were able to tag one of the animals for the first time.
            True’s beaked whales were first identified in 1913 and have seldom been observed anywhere in the world since then. Yet researchers from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass., saw and heard several of the elusive animals almost every day during their expedition from July 20 to August 19.
            “Deep-diving cetaceans such as beaked whales are difficult to study due to their cryptic nature and their offshore distribution. But they are an important part of the deep-water marine
True's beaked whale (NOAA Fisheries under MMPA permit 21371)
ecosystem,” said Danielle Cholewiak, the chief scientist on the project. “Beaked whales are an extraordinary group of species, adapted for an extreme lifestyle. They dive to incredible depths to forage and spend long periods of time deep underwater.”
            Portsmouth native Annamaria Izzi, one of the biologists participating in the expedition, jokingly described True’s beaked whales as looking “like ugly upside-down dolphins” with no teeth inside their mouth but two teeth sticking outside their mouth that males use to fight with each other.
            Every day during the research cruise, Izzi and her colleagues deployed an array of hydrophones – underwater microphones – that were dragged behind the ship to listen for whales.
            “We went from knowing nothing about them to having interesting clicks on the hydrophone and a couple visual approaches that cued us in to what they look like and sound like,” Izzi said. The clicking sounds were created by the whales using their echolocation abilities to navigate in the darkness of the deep water. “Beaked whales are similar to bats in their use of echolocation,” she added.
            This year’s expedition was a follow-up to similar efforts in 2016 and 2017 that resulted in the discovery of what Izzi called “hotspots of acoustic detection of beaked whales,” mostly near the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument south of Cape Cod.
            “The noise they make is supersonic; you can’t hear it, so you have to see it,” explained Izzi. “A computer program takes in the sounds detected by the hydrophone and gives a visual representation of it.”
            One of the main accomplishments of the expedition was the tagging of one True’s beaked whale using what scientists call a digital acoustic recording tag attached to the whale with a suction-cup. The device recorded the movements and acoustic behavior of the whale for about 12 hours before it came off and was recovered.
            “The data from this tag gives us the first detailed glimpse into the underwater behavior of True’s baked whales,” said Cholewiak. “We are excited about the new insights we can glean about this species.”
            The scientists will soon compare the diving behavior they recorded of the True’s beaked whales to the behavior of other species of beaked whales.
            Izzi said the expedition raised a lot of new questions.
            “I’m focused on the acoustic aspect of these whales, so I’m really interested in learning more about what we’re recording with the towed array,” she said. “The hydrophones are at the surface while the whales are diving deep, and they’re only clicking when they’re down deep. I know I’m not getting all the clicks they’re emitting, so I wonder what part of the diving sequence I’m picking up. What am I hearing and how is that different from what they’re actually producing?”
            The scientists also collected water samples in the immediate vicinity of where the beaked whales swam in an effort to collect bits of whale DNA.
            “Environmental DNA, or eDNA, is DNA left in the environment when an animal passes through it,” said Cholewiak. “It’s an exciting tool that may provide a better understanding of species identity and population structure, just from sampling water.”
            A dozen eDNA samples were collected by the scientists and paired with biopsy samples and whale photographs to match the DNA samples to specific animals.
            Why are True’s beaked whales being found in good numbers in the waters off southern New England? Izzi said it’s because the whales prefer the habitat around small island chains or underwater mountains, and the edge of the continental shelf and the seamounts in the new marine monument provide that unusual habitat.
            “A lot of previous studies have been around the Canary Islands, the Bahamas, or around San Clemente Island off Southern California,” she said. “We don’t have any deep-sea islands around here, but we do have deep-sea seamounts, which are a good place for upwelling and primary productivity, where there’s more prey availability that can support large populations of whales.”
            Izzi said the next step in studying True’s beaked whales in the region is to place more tags on the animals.
            “We have information that gives us a first look at the species, but it’s only based on one tag for 12 hours. Every whale is different,” she said. “We really need to get more tags on more whales. Our chief scientist is interested in looking at group structure and creating a photo ID catalog of individual whales based on their unique scar patterns. And we want to keep working with this eDNA approach to see if it works for beaked whales.”
            The research is being conducted as part of the Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species, an annual survey sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assess the populations of marine mammals in area waters. The program focuses on the collection of seasonal data on the abundance, distribution and behavior of marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds in the U.S. Atlantic Exclusive Economic Zone.

This article first appeared on on September 20, 2018.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Educators become oceanographers-in-training with Teachers-at-Sea program

The water 110 miles south of Rhode Island is a beautiful translucent blue-green, with bits of sargassum weed drifting north on the Gulf Stream from the Sargasso Sea. It was hot during the first days of August, and despite it being hurricane season, the skies were blue and the waters calm.
A group of eight schoolteachers traveled here aboard the R/V Endeavor, the University of Rhode Island’s 185-foot research ship, as part of the Rhode Island Teachers at Sea program, to get experience as oceanographers. With the help of Oceanography Professor David Smith and several deckhands and marine technicians, they deployed oceanographic instruments, collected sediment samples from a mile deep, studied plankton and analyzed data about the physical properties of the water column.
“Every summer I like to do something related to my curriculum that I can learn from and
can use to explain things to my students about what real scientists do,” said Beth Brocato, a science teacher at Exeter-West Greenwich Middle School.  “I can show them and tell them that I was there when we put that device down in the water and collected that data. Everything we did is applicable to my classes.”
Sponsored by the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, the three-day expedition is designed to establish partnerships between ocean scientists, researchers and teachers who live and teach in Rhode Island. It is funded by the Rhode Island Endeavor Program, a state-funded effort to provide URI researchers and local educators with access to the scientific and educational capabilities of an ocean-going research vessel.
In addition to the hands-on science, the teachers also learned about the ship’s operations and the physical aspects of working at sea.
“Our main objective is to try to get teachers to understand how science really happens at sea,” said Smith, who also serves as associate dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography. “Working at sea is a lot more difficult than working on land, and the variability of the ocean itself somewhat limits what you can do and observe about it.
“We also want to let people around Rhode Island know about this incredible vessel that has served as an ambassador for the state for so many years,” he added. “By bringing educators aboard, the experience gets into the classroom, and if their students are anything like my kids, they’ll be talking about it over dinner.”
Burrillville Middle School science teacher Pat Lapierre said that everything she learned aboard ship applies to the lessons she teaches during the first few months of the school year.
“It’s given me a huge amount of background knowledge, especially working with equipment and science safety,” she said. “And it’s also providing me with things to make my teaching entertaining to my students. It’s given me a bag of tricks of examples – pictures, data, scientists – to keep my students engaged.”
At St. George’s School in Middletown, Corey Cramer teaches high school English, including a course on maritime literature. He used his time at sea to think about the perspective of the scientists and crew.
“Ships throw different people together from different worlds and different backgrounds, but we’re all here for some semblance of the same purpose,” he said. “I want to ask my students what the shipboard experience does to time – the ship is constantly moving, we go to bed in one place and wake up 80 miles away, different people are on different schedules. I’ll ask my students to consider how different concepts of time apply to literature.”     
The experience aboard the Endeavor was not just useful to teachers in the upper grades, however. Several teachers of early elementary students found the program equally beneficial.
Cynthia Sime, who teaches kindergarten students in Spanish as part of a dual language program at West Kingston Elementary School, said that it’s important for teachers at all grade levels to be well-rounded and informed about important issues.
“I need to have that knowledge when I talk about the ocean. I need to know the background and the science, even for kindergarten,” she said. “People don’t think kindergarteners do science, but we do as much as the fifth graders do. So if I have the background and passion and experience like I got from this program, I can bring it to my students.”
Second grade teacher Amy Fratantonio agrees. “Second graders can get it,” she said of her Richmond Elementary School students. “They’re really sponges; they’re up to the challenge. And they can grasp the concept of how important this work really is. They’re so ready for it.”

Monday, September 10, 2018

Grasshoppers an unexpectedly important player in salt marsh ecosystem

           As efforts are being undertaken to protect salt marshes – and the threatened salt marsh sparrow – from the rising seas, scientists may be ignoring an unexpectedly important player in this environmental drama: grasshoppers.
            According to Becky Gumbrewicz, a University of Rhode Island senior who studied insects at three salt marshes in the Ocean State this summer, grasshoppers and their close relatives constitute the greatest insect biomass per individual on salt marshes in the region, and they are probably an important food source for the sparrows. But as dredged sand and mud are deposited on some marshes to raise their elevation to combat sea level rise, the grasshoppers may get lost in the mix.
            “We’re curious about how adding that layer of dredged material to the marsh is going to affect the insect populations, like the grasshoppers, that could possibly be buried,” said
Gumbrewicz, a resident of Oxford, Conn., who is majoring in environmental science and management. “We’re trying to get an idea of how to balance combating sea level rise to preserve the salt marshes and benefit the sparrow but also figure out how the insects are impacted and may need to be supported.”
            Working in collaboration with URI Professor Steven Alm and the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, she collected insects at three salt marshes – one inland undisturbed site on the Narrow River, one undisturbed coastal marsh on Ninigret Pond, and a disturbed site on Ninigret Pond that is undergoing restoration by adding a layer of dredged material to raise its elevation. Among the mass of flies, crickets, spiders, moths and beetles she collected were large numbers of grasshoppers.
            “We found most of the grasshoppers near the upland woody vegetation, which is where we think they might be laying their eggs,” Gumbrewicz said. “So if we were to suggest a way to improve salt marsh restoration efforts, it would be to plant more woody vegetation.”
            In addition to her field studies, she also kept grasshoppers in a cage with salt marsh grasses and other upland vegetation to see where the insects lay their eggs.
            “We’re still going over our data and finalizing our numbers, but hopefully with what we’ve collected so far we can make a strong suggestion for further research to be done and possibly revise some of the strategies used in marsh restoration,” she said.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Introduced natural enemies take fight to pests

            The announcement last month that the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that kills native ash trees, had been found in Rhode Island has raised questions about how to eradicate the invader before it wreaks havoc on the attractive trees found in parks, roadsides and forests.
            One strategy being employed against many other invasive species is biocontrol, the use of one organism to control another. And while it may be too late to use it to fight the emerald ash borer and save area trees in many locations, the strategy may help combat the beetle in the future so the next generation of ash trees can thrive.
            “Biocontrol is essentially reuniting natural enemies with a target organism,” said Lisa
Emerald ash borer
Tewksbury, an entomologist at the University of Rhode Island who manages the URI Biocontrol Lab. “They have an evolutionary relationship in which one organism feeds on another organism. So through biocontrol we’re re-establishing that relationship.”
            Typically, that means finding an insect in the region where the pest originated – often Europe or Asia – testing to make sure the insect only feeds on the pest, seeking a permit from the government, releasing the insect wherever the pest resides, and letting nature take its course. It’s considered an effective alternative to the widespread use of pesticides.
            In July, for example, Tewksbury announced that she had released a moth from Eastern Europe whose caterpillar eats nothing but invasive black and pale swallow-wort vines. The vines were introduced to North America in the 19th century and quickly spread throughout the East Coast. Not only do the vines outcompete native species and alter soil chemistry, they harm monarch butterfly populations. If monarchs lay their eggs on swallow-wort leaves instead of the closely related milkweed, the larvae that hatch are unable to survive.
            Tewksbury and her students spent 10 years testing a Hypena moth to ensure that its caterpillars do not eat any native plants in the U.S. – only the invasive swallow-worts – before getting a government permit to release it in Charlestown and on an island in Buzzard’s Bay last year.
            The practice of biocontrol has its critics, however, who worry that the release of non-native insects could create additional harm to native wildlife in the United States. They point to several unregulated horror stories from a century ago, including the release of mongooses in Hawaii and cane toads in Australia. But for many invasive pests that are well established, there is no alternative to biocontrol.
            URI has been conducting biocontrol research for several decades and has released numerous pest enemies through the years. Many of those pests are no longer a significant concern, thanks to the arrival of the pests’ natural enemies.

Birch Leafminer
            A parasitic wasp from Europe was tested and released in North Kingstown by Tewksbury and her colleagues in 1989 to combat the birch leafminer, an invasive insect that “mines” between the surfaces of birch tree leaves. The leafminer was a significant pest in the Northeast in the 1970s and 80s, turning leaves brown in about 80 percent of the region’s birch trees, though killing very few. The wasp lays its eggs in the leafminer, and when the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae consume the leafminer from the inside.
            In addition to the Rhode Island site, the wasp was released in many other locations throughout the Northeast in the 1980s and 90s. Birch leafminers are no longer considered a pest in the region, and damage from the insects has not been observed in Rhode Island since 2004.

Purple Loosestrife
            A leaf-eating beetle native to Europe was released at Roger Williams Park Zoo and other locations in Rhode Island to control the spread of the invasive wetland plant purple loosestrife in the late 1990s. The beetles reproduced so well at a site in North Kingstown that some were collected there and redistributed elsewhere.
            “In areas that had large infestations of purple loosestrife, the beetles have cut it back quite a bit,” Tewksbury said. “The beetle does best in open water areas, but the plant is still growing in shady areas like along rivers. It’s been a nice long-term success at keeping loosestrife under control, but it hasn’t eradicated it. Biocontrol of weeds doesn’t typically eliminate the pest, but just provides long-term management.”

Lily Leaf Beetle
            A beetle that consumes ornamental lilies was accidentally introduced in Cambridge, Mass., in 1992, and many gardeners in southern New England gave up trying to grow lilies due to the damage from the beetle. URI scientists identified three parasitic wasps from Europe that control the lily leaf beetle, tested them in their lab for several years, and released the wasps at many locations in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.
            According to Tewksbury, anecdotal evidence suggests that the beetle is no longer a significant problem in Rhode Island, though it can still be found in a few isolated gardens. She continues to raise the wasps in her lab to provide to colleagues in other states as the beetle continues to spread elsewhere.
Winter Moth
            The caterpillars of invasive winter moths, which are native to Europe, have defoliated tens of thousands of acres of trees in Rhode Island in recent years, but a European fly introduced at about eight sites in the state since 2011 has helped to keep the moth population under control.
            According to entomologist Heather Faubert, a URI colleague of Tewksbury, the fly lays its eggs on tree leaves at about the same time that the caterpillars are feeding on the leaves. When the caterpillars consume the fly eggs, the eggs hatch inside the caterpillar and the fly larvae feeds on the inside of the caterpillar.
            “Moth numbers have really come down, and they don’t seem to defoliate much anymore, other than blueberry and apple trees,” she said. “Some of that is due to the fly, but I’m also seeing mice and beetles eating a lot of moth pupa, and birds love to eat the caterpillars.”

            Two moths whose caterpillars feed inside the stems of the invasive wetland plant phragmites are being tested at the URI lab, and Tewksbury will soon seek government approval to release them in the area. Phragmites is often controlled with the application of herbicides, which should not be used in salt marshes and other coastal locations where phragmites grows extensively.

Mile-a-Minute Vine
            A weevil native to the Far East is the weapon of choice in the fight against a fast-growing invasive vine that was first found on Block Island in 2008 and has spread to at least seven communities in the state. Tewksbury has released more than 60,000 weevils – some she has reared herself, others she obtained from a biocontrol lab in New Jersey – and she is continuing annual releases at many of the sites.
            “The weevils are definitely established and having an impact,” she said. “I can see the feeding damage they’re having. But this plant is a really tough one to combat, and I’m not sure how well it’s going to do. It will probably prevent the vine’s spread, but I don’t see populations going away any time soon.”
            Regardless of the level of success the weevil has achieved against mile-a-minute vine, most scientists agree that biocontrol is a vital option in the battle against invasive species.
            “Having this lab enables us to have an impact on a lot of natural areas in Rhode Island by controlling introduced pests without using pesticides,” Tewksbury said. “The costs are low compared to chemical methods, and you hope for a long-term ecological solution.”

This article first appeared on on September 5, 2018.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Citizen scientists document breeding birds in every corner of Rhode Island

            At the edge of a 40-acre hayfield behind St. Theresa’s church in Burrillville, long-time Audubon member Cindy Szymanski called out the names of the birds she heard singing – house wren, blue-winged warbler, eastern wood peewee, common yellowthroat, tufted titmouse, Baltimore oriole and several more. She spotted additional species darting across the field and soaring overhead.
But identifying the birds was only the first step in Szymanski’s morning of birding. She patiently watched each species she saw for any obvious signs that the birds were breeding. A bird carrying a caterpillar – without swallowing it – was a sign it was bringing food to its nestlings, for instance, or a bird flying away with grass in its beak was an indication it was building a nest.
Those observations are crucial data being collected by more than 240 volunteers as part
of the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, a five-year effort to document the breeding status of every species of bird found in the state. The project, now in its fourth year, divides Rhode Island into 165 blocks, each 10-square-miles in size. Volunteers scour the various habitats in each block during the breeding season for as many bird species as they can find – day and night – and record any behaviors they observe that indicate whether the species is possibly, probably or confirmed breeding in the block.
Szymanski recorded 77 species in her block by July 1 and had confirmed that 41 were breeding.
Atlas coordinator Charles Clarkson, a member of Audubon’s board of directors, said that the Breeding Bird Atlas is a way of gathering data to understand the health of bird populations by measuring their distribution, density and use of habitat.
“Birds are bio-indicator species that can tell us a lot about the health of ecosystems. How well bird populations are doing tells us how their habitats are doing,” he said. “The data we collect helps us better direct our conservation efforts. The atlas is a useful conservation tool used by non-profits like Audubon as well as by state agencies.”
Clarkson describes the process of collecting data as “slow birding,” because it requires volunteers to watch individual birds for extended periods of time while waiting for them to exhibit behaviors indicative of breeding. It requires a great deal of patience, but the payoff in seldom-seen behaviors is high.
In addition to the data being collected by individual volunteers in their assigned blocks, similar information for the atlas is gathered during nocturnal bird surveys seeking to document the breeding behavior of owls, woodcocks and nightjars. Biological technicians also conduct “point counts” at designated sites to assess bird abundance. Long-term bird survey data from other sources, like Audubon’s osprey monitoring program, local bird banding station data, e-Bird and Project Feederwatch, will also be incorporated into the final report, which will take the form of a coffee table book with species accounts and distribution maps. The data will also be available online at the conclusion of the project.
            Sponsored by the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas is a follow-up to an identical effort conducted in the 1980s, when 68 volunteers documented 164 species breeding in the state. The current atlas has already documented 167 species, but the detailed results will likely be quite different from the previous atlas, due largely to...

Read the rest of the article in the fall 2018 issue of Audubon Report.